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What the numbers behind unemployment really mean

People meet potential employers at a job fair held at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), on March 21, 2012 in New York City. Unemployment fell slightly last month, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. Not counted: the number of people who have given up looking for work.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 315,000 Americans filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week. It’s the lowest weekly jobs number in three months, but it's also not the entire story.

Economists tend to more closely monitor and ascribe more value to employment numbers in monthly summaries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent report shows the U.S. economy added 175,000 in February, which pushed the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent.

Jobs data is subject to revisions, and it is probable that figures for the week that ended on March 8 will change in subsequent reports. It is especially likely because there has been so much bad weather across the U.S.

Cooper Howes, an economist at Barclays Capital, says “claims data have been volatile dating back to last fall.” In a note to investors, Howes stated:

“Factors such as computer system upgrades, seasonal adjustments related to moving holidays, and severe weather all potentially complicated the interpretation of the previously steady downward trend."

Democrats, led by President Obama, continue to call for an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, which expired on Dec. 28, 2013. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.8 million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or more.

Many Republicans have signaled they are open to reinstating those benefits, but they continue to call for the costs to be offset by cuts elsewhere. As of yet, the two parties have failed to agree on a way forward.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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